Anti-Fat Bias with Aubrey Gordon

What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat by Aubrey Gordon

I first heard of Aubrey Gordon when I started listening to her podcast Maintenance Phase. She and cohost Michael Hobbes discuss wellness and weight-loss trends, fads, and policies to find out what’s true, what’s a myth, and what’s just flat-out ridiculous to learn more about how society is obsessed with diet and wellness culture to the detriment of our health. I love their tagline, “Wellness and Weight Loss, Debunked and Decoded,” and I come away from each episode with new ideas and understanding, which is an interesting experience as I try to get healthier and lose weight for my own benefit.

So, when I started reading Gordon’s What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat, I knew I’d learn more about diet culture, and I certainly did! As a fat woman who has always felt less-than because of my plus-size body, who has been ashamed to be in public because of my weight, who has fluctuated in weight throughout the last 14 years, I embraced this book with a desire to feel more in control of my body.

Important Note: Gordon defines herself as fat and uses that terminology throughout the book, not in a pejorative way but in a descriptive manner. Therefore, I’m following her lead in that language within this review.

What I Liked About What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat

  • The Vulnerability: Gordon shares personal experiences with anti-fat bias that are both heart-wrenching and infuriating.
    • She is open about being a fat woman and shares stories of times when other people have shamed her for being fat, like when a man threw a fit in a plane because he was seated next to her, when people have told her she shouldn’t be wearing an outfit, and perhaps the most passive-aggressive woman actually took a melon out of Gordon’s grocery shopping cart and told her that she didn’t need the sugar. The fact that so many strangers feel superior enough to take agency over Gordon’s body was eye-opening, as was her overall message that her experiences are not anomalies.
    • Another truly impactful part of this book for me was Gordon’s discussion of how fat women are assumed to be less desirable and therefore more culpable in sexual assault and abuse situations. She wrote all the words I wish I’d read when I was 18, a Size 14, and kept quiet about my sexual assault because of my shame.
  • The Research: Gordon’s book is short, less than 200 pages of essays, but it is full of research and footnotes. While I found some sections to be a bit too dense, I loved that this book wasn’t just a memoir about fatness and personal experiences. Gordon is a brilliant researcher, and so much of the book reads like investigative journalism, which gives way to fully understanding what anti-fat bias is, its pervasiveness across society, and how policies should change to rectify how companies and individuals treat body size.
  • The Messages: Gordon’s message that anti-fat bias is prevalent in nearly every aspect of society. She’s not afraid to take on tough topics that we’ve accepted as the rule, not the exception, like the BMI; the calorie-in, calorie-out weight loss model; the expense of nutrient-laden food; and the constant recommendations of how/why/when to lose weight.
    • Also, I appreciated that Gordon doesn’t assume that everyone should embrace the body positivity movement, especially as others (namely thin white women) have switched the movement to further establish their thinness superiority.

If you’re looking for a weight-loss motivation book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Fat is not it. If you want a book that will help you to understand the reasons why anti-fat bias remains prevalent and destructive, then this is it. And, if you want to learn more, I highly recommend the Maintenance Phase podcast with Aubrey Gordon and Michael Hobbes.

Childhood Experiences and the Influence on My Body

It is well-established that experiences in childhood can impact your life as an adult. While literature on the subject continues to grow, a recent study encapsulates this phenomenon for me:

Childhood experiences affect family health in adulthood in the expected direction. Even in the presence of early adversity, positive experiences in childhood can provide a foundation for creating better family health in adulthood.

Daines, C.L., Hansen, D., Novilla, M.L.B. et al. Effects of positive and negative childhood experiences on adult family health. BMC Public Health 21, 651 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-10732-w

Let me illustrate this with a story about how a few simple interactions have influenced my shame about my body throughout the years.

As I’ve established, I have had a weight problem since I was 6 or 7. One day, I declared to my mom that I wanted to lose weight and therefore would eat nothing that day or the next. She said, “That’s not a reasonable way to lose weight.” I couldn’t do it anyway, I was little and liked food.

Every year during my childhood, my parents would take me to an asthma and allergy clinic to get a physical and check any new symptoms. I hated this annual appointment with a fevered passion. Yes, the allergy tests – those dreaded scratch tests – hurt like hell, but what hurt more was the doctor’s inevitable statement that “Jessica would do better if she lost some weight.”

I knew that statement was coming every year. I was on the high end of the recommended weight for my height, never really over and beyond that, but the doctor didn’t like my weight for medical reasons, he said. In the summers of my pre-teen and teenage years during the few weeks before this annual appointment, I’d try to lose weight, having the scale reading from the year before imprinted in my mind. But crash diets didn’t work for me and I liked food too much. My only triumphant year was in high school when I weighed one pound less than the year before. But it wasn’t enough for the doctor.

So, my history with food and weight loss and disordered eating didn’t just begin in 2000 when I started purging as a 19-year-old at a family dinner in a steakhouse. And it certainly didn’t end after I returned home from getting treatment for bulimia. I slowed my purging, cutting down until I absolutely needed to do so – to expunge all the weight and heaviness from my body. But, my weight is a constant theme in my life, covered in a thick sauce of anxiety and depression.

The Popcorn Incident

Let me tell you a story about one of my most embarrassing moments, one that has been with me since I was in elementary school.

One night, I think Mom and Dad wanted to go out on the town, so they left me and a friend at the YMCA for a movie night. We sat on a sticky floor surrounded by strange kids who’d also been signed up for this event as a ruse to give their parents a break, and we stared at a television set that looked like it had been rolled in from a nursing home. As kids chomped on popcorn and drank too much sugary soda, I could feel these strangers’ eyes boring down on me because I was the only person out of 5 billion people in the world in 1989 who hated popcorn.

I was also fat, so I was an anomaly to the others as I wasn’t eating from a greasy bag of buttered kernels that smelled to me like socks. Two girls sitting a few feet from me zeroed in on this situation and started to throw those stale bits of popcorn at me. “Eat, you pig. You know you want to. You sure are fat,” they whispered in voices that sounded harsher than any other fourth graders’ voices I’d ever heard.

I tried to hold in the tears that started to push at my eyelids. I could feel my face burn with embarrassment. I would have rather peed my pants than have those girls call me fat in public. I wanted to run, to find an adult, to see my dad, but I couldn’t move because it’s not possible to get up off the floor while being fat after bullies have called you out for being fat. My friend was my hero. She gave them the fourth-grade death glare and said, “Shut up, bitches,” adding in a swear word because when you’re nine you can do that. Her parents ran the bar in Brunswick, so she was very worldly and knew how to cuss someone out in 47 different ways.

I made my friend promise not to tell anyone about those bullies at the YMCA Movie Night. I don’t know that I even said anything to my parents when they picked us up. I just sat in the backseat and felt what had already become repetitive in my nine years on Earth–my body was revolting; therefore, I was not good enough. Strangers had seen my weakness in the chub that rested around my belly, and they’d pounced. That night was more evidence that I was simply wrong.

My Bookish Body

I’m at a loss with my body. I want this new installment here will be a way for me to chronicle these challenges and to find some kind of accountability to make changes. This is the first time I’ve publicly documented the scale’s reports, the embarrassment and self-hatred of feeling out of control. This is my unapologetic truth. Be kind, readers.

I spend a large portion of my life focused on my body: hating it, condemning it, shaming it. This has been a constant in my life since childhood.

I am not a waif, I am not petite, and I am not delicate. I’ve wanted to be those bodies since I was 7 years old, the first time that I remember starting to compare my body type to my friends and family. My family’s obsession with health, my continued struggles with asthma, and my general sense of being other deeply impacted me then and continues to be a part of my internal narrative.

When I look back at my teenage years and think about that ugly voice inside my head, I realize I wasn’t as fat as I thought I was. Yes, I was bigger than my classmates, but I balanced out at a size 14 and had the boobs to carry it. I dressed well because my mom knew how to help me camouflage my problem areas and because we had the money to buy clothes that were stylish but fit well. I remained at a solid 162 pounds for most of my high school years, and at 5’7″ I was still well-proportioned.

College is when I started to pack on the pounds. After a bad breakup, I gained about 15 pounds, suddenly losing that high-end-of-average weight. And, did you know that bulimia really doesn’t help you lose weight? It’s an eating disorder for a reason. When you’re stuffing an entire large Papa John’s pizza down your throat and then vomiting it all back up on a nightly basis, your body recognizes that it’s not healthy and grabs every spare calorie it can.

Then next two decades were filled with yo-yo diets, extensive measures to limit my size, and failures. At 28 and pregnant, I gained nearly 100 pounds and then lost 60 after giving birth to my daughter. At 29 I packed on another 20 during and after my divorce, and then the scale went even further to the right. For the first time in years I could sneak eat without the fear of someone finding me in the kitchen late at night, stuffing peanut butter into my mouth. Spoon to jar, spoon to jar, spoon to jar. A repetitive motion of comfort eating while I faced loneliness, stress, and despair. I climbed closer to 270 pounds and compensated with plus-size clothing I purchased on credit cards. My climbing weight was one more example of failure.

Getting married again inspired me to lose weight the healthy way, but then that motivation disappeared after I wore my wedding dress. I finally lost weight at 38, but I didn’t do it in a healthy manner. Now, almost 4 years later, my weight continues to increase month-over-month. I’m working from home, so I no longer have a commute that keeps me walking. I binge eat regularly at night, searching for any high-fat, high-calorie morsel that will bring on the glazed eyes, distended belly, and blank mind that only food seems to create for me.

I’m desperate for the real motivation to make changes. As I’m now firmly set in my mid-life years, I know that taking care of myself is paramount if I want to have a healthy remainder of time left on this planet. But, the motivation is fleeting, and that continues the cycle of failure in my mind and body.

Does anyone else feel this way? Why am I like this? How do I get help?